Canada’s book publishing trade association Booknet is warning that as bookstores open their doors there will be even more books than usual being sent back unsold and unwanted.

While some bookstores have managed to maintain curbside sales, overall bricks & mortar sales are down about 63% and bookstores are sitting on case after case of unsold books that there is unlikely to be sufficient demand for as high street trade gradually resumes.

Canada’s The Star quotes Booknet Canada’s Noah Genner as saying:

If we just look at physical bookstores, so not online retailers, but mostly physical bookstores, they’re down almost 63 per cent year over year for the period. So 63 per cent in unit sales. That is hugely significant.

Some pressure may be alleviated by the fact that publishers have also been on hold, and new books that would have been making their way to bookstores are on a slower schedule, but we’ll see the real impact of the returns problems in coming months.

The returns model, introduced last century to give bookstores flexibility to stock more books than they needed at no risk, is not just a Canadian problem but a model used around the world, and in normal circumstances the expectation of returns is factored into the production costs, so would not be a heavy drain on publisher profits.

But now publishers face not only the loss of sales for the lockdown duration (and however long it takes for some degree of normal trading to resume) but also an exceptional excess of unsold titles that will end up being pulped or more likely sold off to remaindered operations for re-sale.

Just perhaps, this development will push the industry to re-examine the returns policy and try introduce a twenty-first century solution that can work more effectively in the era of digital books, online sales and the vibrant global remaindered trade.

Given bookstores cannot effectively function without a returns policy, perhaps the most likely outcome would be for publishers to take their remaindered stock seriously and in the domestic markets at least (a vast quantity of remaindered stock goes overseas through operators like Big Bad Wolf) would be to sell it off themselves, rather than palm it off on remaindered sellers who then make a pretty profit that could be staying with the publisher.